I’ve been meaning to tell you…
This week at the MSO, the Milwaukee Symphony will play Mahler’s First (“Titan”), the composer’s briefest and most accessible symphony.
It weighs in under 45 minutes — the soul of brevity, by Mahlerian standards. It also extends a hand to the uninitiated: Brüder Martin, the tune we all learned as tots as Frère Jacques, figures prominently. Also, Mahler trades on the sort of tragic and triumphant musical vocabulary we all know from film music; its nostalgic, ironic and violent moods are readily comprehensible. Finally, we can latch on the loose narrative that Mahler at first published with the score. A hero suffers, doubts, then finally breaks through to paradise (perhaps heavenly, perhaps earthly). You can hear all that whether or not you’ve read the program.
But I wouldn’t focus too much on the outward narrative, which Mahler jettisoned — along with the entire second movement, reducing the count to four — after a disastrous premiere. I think the music, declarative as its fanfares and heroic themes might be, is essentially introspective.
In the 1880s, when he composed this piece, psychology was emerging as a science in Central Europe. Dreams and the inner life were all the rage. Mahler, who had a terrible childhood and an abusive father, was a sensitive man with intense emotions and great self-awareness. He was interested in psychology; in 1910, racked by his young wife’s infidelity, he had a session with Sigmund Freud. Mahler impressed Freud with his knowledge of the field.
So Mahler was at least interested, if not obsessed, with the machinery of his own feelings and his own brain.
Mahler had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in order to conform. He was torn in different directions; that’s what I hear in the Symphony No. 1, especially in the remarkable third movement. Brüder Martin opens it, but not as a cheerful nursery tune; Mahler recast it in minor as a brooding funeral march. The inspiration for it, by the way, was a well-known German story for children, an account of forest animals in mock mourning at the funeral procession of a hunter. Mahler lays in gloom and ironic humor in about equal proportions. The humor comes in his raucous evocations of Jewish Klezmer music. Don’t forget that Frère Jacques had to do with a sleepy Catholic monk being called to prayer; the German version was associated with Martin Luther being called to commence the Protestant Reformation. I’m not usually one to assume that a composer’s music reflects his mental and emotional state, but in this case, it might very well be so.
You can listen and decide for yourself at MSO concerts this weekend. The Friday matinee begins at 11:15 a.m.; Saturday’s concert begins at 8 p.m. (Oct. 14-15). Both are at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $22 and up at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. Edo de Waart will conduct both the Mahler symphony and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. They could have titled this program Romantics with Issues.
Leslie Fitzwater, singer, actress and one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. I saw her at a concert a few weeks ago and was encouraged that she looked well. But she is an actress and quite capable of covering up her pain to put others at their ease. Leslie would do that.
Leslie, a stalwart of the Skylight Opera Theatre since 1979, was to do her Edith Piaf Onstage revue in the company’s Studio Theatre Jan. 27-Feb. 12. The company has pushed that back one year to allow Leslie sufficient time to recover. The company will fill that slot by reviving Gershwin and Friends, which Cynthia Cobb and Parrish Collier developed for the Skylight last year. They will be back to perform it again.
Doubling Down on Dead Movie Stars: Renaissance Theaterworks will open Don Nigro’s Gorgons Friday (Oct. 14) night. The play is about two aging starlets, rivals throughout their careers. They find themselves in the same low-budget horror film as they claw to keep their names before the public. The RTW press release puts it this way: “Think Bette Davis and Joan Crawford [Marcella Kearns and Jennifer Rupp] duking it out on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
What are the odds of two Bette and Joan plays being produced in Milwaukee in the same month? Our crack TCD research department figures it at 1 to 16,277, 342. So the two companies must have colluded on this, right?
“No,” said RTW’s Sarah Kriger Hwang. “There was absolutely no coordination.”
Finally, the Summer of China show has ended at the Milwaukee Art Museum, but Yue Minjun’s Contemporary Chinese Warriors linger on, in a new location. The platoon of bronze figures had been downstairs in the north wing, where Taryn Simon’s show is now. It seems that during a full moon, the Warriors came to life, marched in ranks up the steps, down the east promenade, through Windhover Hall, into the west promenade, did a smart about-face, settled into ranks. A spokeswarrior said that they would refuse to budge until Dec. 4.
Do go see them again. They look a lot different in the new formation.